The Basics of Print

Fine art printmaking involves the creation of a master plate from which multiple images are made. Simply put, the artist chooses a surface to be the plate. This could be linoleum, styrofoam, metal, cardboard, stone or any one of a number of materials. Then the artist prepares the printing plate by cutting, etching or drawing an image onto the plate. Ink is applied (in a variety of ways) and paper is pressed onto the plate either by hand or by way of a hand-run printing press. The finished print is pulled from the plate.

Often the first three or four prints of are different than the rest of the edition. These first prints are called artist’s proofs. The number of prints pulled from one plate is called an edition. Once a certain number of prints are pulled, the plate is destroyed so that more prints won’t be printed later, thus ensuring the value of the edition. At the bottom of a print are two to three things always written in pencil. On the left is a number that appears as a fraction (e.g. 6/25), this means that the print is number six of a total of twenty five prints pulled from one plate. This number excludes the artist proofs which are designated with an A/P. In the centre of the bottom of the print is the title (if any). At the bottom right, is the artist’s name and sometimes a date.

There are four main types of printmaking:

  • Relief Printing

    This is printing from a raised surface. Relief printing plates are made from flat sheets of material such as wood, linoleum, metal, styrofoam etc. After drawing a picture on the surface, the artist uses tools to cut away the areas that will not print. A roller – called a brayer – is used to spread ink on the plate. A sheet of paper is placed on top of the plate and the image is transferred by rubbing with the hand or a block of wood, or by being run through a printing press. The completed print is a mirror image of the original plate.

  • Lithography

    Lithography is the art of printing from a flat stone (limestone) or metal plate by a method based on the simple fact that grease attracts grease as it repels water. A design or image is drawn on the surface with a greasy material – grease crayon, pencil or ink – and then water and printing ink are applied. The greasy parts absorb the ink and the wet parts do not. Acids are often used with this type of printmaking to etch the stone and prevent grease from traveling where it should not. Lithography is a process still used by modern printers. Magazines, posters, newspapers and other commercially printed materials are printed with a lithographic process sometimes called off-set printing.

  • Intaglio

    This describes prints that are made by cutting the picture into the surface of the printing plate. Using a sharp V-shaped tool – called a burin – the printmaker gouges the lines of an image into the surface of a smooth polished sheet of metal or in some cases a piece of plexiglass. To make a print, ink is pushed into the lines of the design. The surface is then wiped clean so that the only areas with ink are the lines. A sheet of paper which has been soaked in water is then placed on the plate which is run through a printing press. The paper is literally forced into the small lines that have been cut into the plate. A variation of this technique is known as etching. With etching, acids are used to eat into the metal plate.

  • Serigraph or Silkscreen

    Sometimes called silk screening, serigraphy (seri means silk) is a type of stencil printing. A stencil is fastened to a sheet of silk which is tightly stretched across a wooden frame. Areas of the silk are “blocked out” using a light sensitive screen filler. The screen is then “burned” and the area protected by the stencil are washed. Then the frame is placed against the material to be printed. A squeegee is used to push the ink through the open areas onto the material or paper below.

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